How You Can Avoid Shingles If You Have Cancer

Shingrix vaccine for compromised immune systems
How You Can Avoid Shingles If You Have Cancer

If you’re an adult over age 50 receiving chemotherapy for cancer, you can now take steps to cut your risk for shingles, a painful infection caused by the same virus as the chicken pox.

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Preventative options were once limited because the original shingles vaccine, called Zostavax®, was not an option for anyone with a compromised immune system. But the newly approved Shingrix® vaccine is an option.

Shingrix: Not a live virus

Unlike the older vaccine, Shingrix is not made from a live virus. “This means there’s no chance you can get shingles from the vaccine,” says clinical immunologist Leonard Calabrese, DO.

Shingrix is administered by two injections, and there is a slight risk of side effects with each.

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Some people may experience soreness at the injection site or about 10% of people can have flu-like symptoms, such as muscle aches, fever, chills and fatigue, that can last about a week. However, getting more than 90% protection from shingles over three or more years is a worthwhile trade-off, Dr. Calabrese says.

Oncologist Dale Shepard, MD, PhD, says it’s important if you’re receiving cancer treatment to get the vaccine, if possible.

“Having decreased immunity can increase the likelihood of getting shingles, so that’s even more reason people should maintain their vaccines,” he says.

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Who should avoid the Shingrix vaccine?

You should avoid getting Shingrix if you:

  • Have a severe allergy to any components of the vaccine.
  • Are, or might be, pregnant.
  • Have a severe illness with a high fever (you can get it after the illness resolves).

If you think you’re a candidate for Shingrix, talk with your doctor about if and when you should receive it. They can explain its benefits and offer advice based on your personal health history.

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